Reviewed by Emma Newrick & Stefan Fergus
Some of the most beloved and bestselling fantasy writers working today deliver stunning all-new sword and sorcery stories in an anthology of small stakes but high action, grim humour mixed with gritty violence, fierce monsters and fabulous treasures, and, of course, plenty of swordplay.
In Swords & Dark Magic, we have 17 short stories from a number of top-notch fantasy authors. Some are better known than others (Glen Cook, Michael Moorcock, Robert Silverberg, and Gene Wolfe), while others are relatively new names (Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, and James Enge). As Emma and I are interested in different authors, I decided to do something a little different for this review, and it will be split between us. You will also notice that not all the stories are reviewed – this is not because we didn’t like them or were disinterested in giving all the work in this anthology due attention. It is merely because of time considerations and the wish to focus the review a bit more. Unfair? Perhaps, but that’s just the way it goes – it took some finagling to get the book rotated between the two of us as it is. Being the pensive person I am, I also thought I’d start with a couple of comments on fantasy fiction as a whole, largely inspired by Strahan and Anders’ introduction to the anthology. (Reviews are introduced in bold, so feel free to jump ahead.)
I’m someone who only recently became a devotee of fantasy fiction: I’d read everything by Terry Pratchett (who remains my favourite author), a good deal of Black Library fantasy, a couple of Terry Brooks’ Shannara novels read at school, and Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, but I never became a real fan, ready to dedicate vast swathes of my youth to reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, or working my way through established series by David Eddings, Steve Erikson, George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb, David Gemmell, and so forth.
All this changed after I read Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora three years ago. It pulled away the veil from my eyes regarding what fantasy could be: exceptionally well-written, complex, multi-layered, and so forth. It’s not all elves, dwarves and straining bodices (though, let’s be honest, that can sometimes be nice). I know now that this isn’t what a lot of fantasy fiction is about, but I could never get into Lord of the Rings, but this was the impression and reputation a lot of it had. I’m so glad I am better informed, now.
There’s ‘epic fantasy’, ‘urban fantasy’, and the ‘sword and sorcery’ of this anthology. Without knowing it, I became a considerable fan of this latter genre, preferring it to the epic battles of Tolkien and his successors – perhaps as an outgrowth of my appreciation of computer games like Diablo and Bill King’s adventures of Gotrek & Felix, both of which are basically swords and sorcery. Books that are made up of giant battle set-pieces were, for me, boring. I wanted to know what was going on with the individuals; their motives, agendas, prejudices, and so on. I had an impression of there being a clear-cut divide between the ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘light’ and ‘dark’. Now I know that there’s a lot more going on in fantasy, and I seem to have got in right at the time when this new appreciation of sword and sorcery was really about to take off.
As editors Strahan and Anders describe it, sword and sorcery is “where fantasy meets the western”, with an emphasis on travelling heroes and their unexpected conflicts and adventures. It is a genre of
“Smaller-scale character pieces, often starring morally compromised protagonists, whose heroism involves little more than trying to save their own skins from a trap they themselves blundered into in search of spoils.”
In other words, it’s perfect for my own preferences. The introduction, amusingly titled “Check Your Dark Lord at the Door”, provides an interesting mini-history of the genre, as well as a number of suggestions of further reading.
From the moment I finished Locke Lamora (and its sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies), I’ve not been able to stop, as the reviews on this blog will testify to – my reading habits now veer ever more towards fantasy (interestingly, though, not so much sci-fi, except for Star Wars), and names like Daniel Abraham, Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, Col Buchanan, Kevin J Anderson, and a growing number of others are now more interesting to me than some others that used to be my preferred reading. I spend more time browsing the Sci-Fi/Fantasy sections of bookstores than I do the Crime/Thriller departments, and get an unseemly amount of satisfaction when I make a new discovery (this now also comes in the form of surprise packages from publishers, which can be doubly-satisfying).
True, I’m still addicted to American political thrillers (again, plenty of the reviews on this site will attest to that), but it’s now about even. Perhaps this is a result of my ‘day job’ (US foreign policy PhD and teaching international relations theory and history), which makes me want to escape the real world all the more. But, most likely, it is the growing appreciation of what fantasy has to offer, the complexities of the characters and the quality of the writing and stories.
There are plenty of great authors I’ve never read; some are included in this anthology (Moorcock, Wolfe, Cook, Steven Erikson, and Robert Silverberg), while other titans of the genre have also, thus far, been ‘ignored’; the aforementioned Martin being the the greatest omission to date (I’ve bought the first volume in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, but I just simply haven’t had the time).
Therefore, I think this anthology’s greatest strength is that it can serve as an introduction to some of the best authors currently writing in the genre. The stories within come from established authors and new-blood, offering us an entry-level glimpse of their work and writing-styles. You won’t necessarily like everything in here: some you’ll love, some you’ll be indifferent to, and some will probably just not be to your taste. But, if you only like one story, then you’ll have been introduced to a potentially endless wealth of fiction to enjoy. How to approach the book was another issue: do I start at the beginning and work my way through to the end? Or, do I read the ones I really want to read first, and then delve into the unknown authors’ work? As it turned out, it was the latter approach that won out. For authors I am not familiar with, my comments will also look at whether or not the stories make me want to seek out more by the writer.
So, in no particular order, here are a few impressions of the stories contained in Swords & Dark Magic:
“Goats of Glory”, by Steven Erikson
Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series is one of those great fantasy series that seems to demand reading. Thus far, however, I’ve not bought or read a single one. So, I was looking forward to reading Goats of Glory in order to get a taste of his writing. He has a good writing style, and includes smattering of cheeky, dark wit. The story highlights the grim medieval-style life of his world. A horde of ravenous demons in an isolated keep, a trap and complicit villagers… There was an unexpected, interesting, and satisfying twist to the tale, which made my initial disappointment at guessing what would happen less of an issue. The location of the keep lends itself well to pathetic fallacy, but the author avoided that. I enjoyed the story, but I wasn’t blown away, and was only marginally successful at generating my interest in reading more of Erikson’s stuff (although, Waterstone’s have a special offer on omnibus eBooks, so I might end up buying one to try). That being said, it’s one of the better-written stories of the anthology, so I’d recommend reading it.
“Tides Elba”, by Glen Cook
This is a story of Cook’s most successful and established series, detailing the exploits of The Black Company. Yet another series I’ve intended on reading for ages but never got around to, this was a promising and welcome addition to the anthology. Having never read anything else by Cook, however, I felt a little bit like someone arriving late to a party: the characters have a familiar, established feel to them, with plenty of banter, but I feel like I’ve missed something. Croaker (the narrator of the piece) is charged with investigating Tides Elba, a woman of interest to the higher ups. It’s very well written (if a tad slow), and the series has been on my wish-list for a long time, so I probably will check out more in the future, time permitting. I did laugh out loud at one point, which gets Cook points, and the themes involved were classic and the plot well-constructed and executed.
“Bloodsport”, by Gene Wolfe
The first bit of Wolfe’s work I’ve ever read, and it wasn’t nearly as good as he’s made out to be. An old knight recounts his days as a player in ‘The Game’, which appears to be something akin to real-life chess. After his lands are invaded, he also recounts how he and a ‘pawn’ used their skills to help their beleaguered countrymen. Again, it’s an interesting story, but it’s not entirely gripping, and as one of the shortest, can’t be considered more than a fleeting distraction. I didn’t come to care too much about the characters, which was a pity. I think I’ll probably check out his better-known work at some point, though.
“The Singing Spear”, by James Enge
I’ve been hesitating for a while about buying Enge’s debut novel, Blood of Ambrose, so I was interested to see if this story would convince me. The protagonist is Morlock Ambrosius, the anti-hero of Enge’s short and long fiction. Ambrosius is approached by a stranger to help recover a weapon of his creation, which, in the hands of a pirate, is cutting a bloody ruin through the local region.
The story is extremely quick, and the writing is actually excellent, but I’m not sure about the character. Sometimes he’s focussed and brilliant, at other times, little more than a buffoon... I’m not sure what I would make of a novel-length story featuring this character, but I know now that I am willing to give it a try. Enge’s writing is really very good – great use of language and the flow of his prose is exceptional. (I have now ordered a copy of Blood of Ambrose, so I’ll hopefully be able to offer a review of that soon.)
“The Sea Troll’s Daughter”, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Parallels with Beowulf. A stranger comes to an Icelandic world, claiming to have killed the Sea Troll that has plagued the people of a village. The villagers do not believe her, until the sea troll’s body washes up on the shore. The corpse is dragged back and displayed in the village. A witch arrives and condemns the killing, and predicts it will be followed by judgement. “Beware the sea troll’s daughter,” the witch warns.
Laughing off the warning, the stranger ignores the witch. After a devastating event, the stranger and her lover flee from the village and are confronted by the sea troll’s daughter.
The tale is really dark and unsympathetic towards the human characters, offering a different perspective of a traditional monster. The heroine is very much an anti-heroine, and is not admirable: she’s arrogant, a drunk, and ignoble. Sparse prose, but Kiernan achieves the goals of the story – in a short space, she presents a complete, satisfying-yet-disturbing tale.
“A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet”
by Garth Nix
The injured Sir Hereward is convalescing at a religious retreat, while his companion – the Sorcerous Puppet of the title – continues their quest. His seemingly innocent choice of reading material, coupled with his desire to find a suitable present for the Puppet, results in a demonic encounter that will test both the knight and his companion.
I would say that this is not the best introduction to Nix’s writing, as it has a definitely different: it has a much more fantasy feel than his best known work, the Sabriel series, which even though it is set in a fantasy world, deals with its protagonists and plot in a very grounded manner. This leans far more towards classic fantasy – strange names, strange entities, and it’s hard to identify with the characters. I was intrigued, but spent most of the story being suspicious of the Puppet, which was not really the point of the story. The world is well-crafted, and it would be nice to know more about Hereward and the Puppet – perhaps in further short stories.
It’s good, but – and it pains me to say so, given how much I’ve enjoyed all his other work – the story is not up to Nix’s usual standard.
“A Rich Full Week”, by K.J. Parker
This was the story that took me most by surprise. I’ve read a couple of Parker’s novels, and always been impressed by the invention and imagination that goes into them, but disappointed by the author’s pacing (usually, rather slow). So, what would a Parker short story be like? As it turns out, pretty great. The pacing is still slower than it could have been – partly because of Parker’s love for detail – but again I am impressed by the author’s imagination.
The story is about a travelling wizard, sent off to various locales to fix problems – all of which turn out to be connected. The first is great, and amounts to, effectively, a therapy session with a zombie that the wizard is meant to be killing (such an odd situation, but Parker pulls it off brilliantly). What follows is an account of the wizards other job, and some more information about the world in which it is set, and the magic system the author’s created for the piece.
I really enjoyed this story, and I’ve decided to move Parker’s newest novel. The Folding Knife, up the review order. Expect it to be reviewed pretty soon.
“In The Stacks”, by Scott Lynch
If I’m perfectly honest, this story is the reason I bought the anthology in the first place. As mentioned in the intro to this piece, I’m a huge fan of Lynch’s work, so I was eager to read this latest published work by him (it’s been a while since Red Seas…).
Two wizards must get their fifth year progression exam complete. Their task? To return a library book…
The style is recognisably his – a quirky wit, realistic dialogue and fun characters. The setting is interesting, and perhaps tinged with a slight homage to Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University library (a lot about Lynch’s library reminded me of the Discworld’s most famous and dangerous library – but for Lynch, it’s the library itself that has developed a self, a character that isn’t keen on books being removed). There are some interesting and original – not to mention potentially frightening – denizens of the library, which add a level of danger to the students’ exploits. The ending is fine, if a touch anticlimactic.
It’s a really fun story, with great characters, and I would certainly be interested in reading more in this setting. It has moderately slaked my thirst for more of Lynch’s writing, so I remain eager for the delayed release of The Republic of Thieves.
“The Fool Jobs”, by Joe Abercrombie
A band of mercenaries have been hired to retrieve a “thing... about yay long... know it when you see it, type of thing”, from a little “confirmed shithole” village. I do love Abercrombie’s writing - I must get ’round to finishing the First Law Trilogy and Best Served Cold (all on my shelf, in their gorgeously-designed print editions). Perhaps after a short string of non-fantasy reviews I’ll devote a few weeks to reading all his books.
“There was a long, ugly pause. Uglier than the child of a man and a sheep, as the hillmen have it.”
Filled with the trademark banter that has come to define the relations between his characters, the less-than-cordial bunch go about their mission with focus and a plan, hoping to just sneak in and out again, without any blood-letting. Naturally, it all goes belly up, falls apart, and the situation gets decidedly sticky.
I felt almost immediately at home with the less-than-pleasant, motley bunch, and laughed out loud a number of times. The writing is crisp and quick, the plot made interesting and satisfying, even though it’s so short.
This was the perfect story to finish the collection. If, after reading it, you don’t feel an urge run out to buy his novels (or, as it’s the 21st Century, order it online), then there’s probably something rather wrong with you. Brilliant.
While all these stories have elements to recommend them (and some more than others), I’m reminded again why I tend not to read too many short stories: the lack of character development and progression. While this isn’t so much a problem for those stories set in established worlds, the stories were often slightly-less-than-satisfying. The stories in here, it could be said, suffer the opposite problem to that of many fantasy series and novels, which can sometimes be overly long and tautologous. That being said, some were good enough to recommend further reading, which is ultimately what I was hoping for. In the case of Glen Cook, for example, I now what to read more about the Black Company, because they had the feel of an interesting and complex bunch, but didn’t have enough space to prove it.
I’m not sure if these reviews can really do the stories justice – it’s a lot harder to review short stories than full-length novels, mainly because the possibility of spoiling the story is so much greater. I really wanted to avoid this, which is why these reviews are in such bite-size nuggets.
If you’re looking for an introduction to the genre, however, I think Swords & Dark Magic would be perfect. Some fun, action-packed stories, some more intrigue-related, but all interesting and worth checking out. If nothing else, you could always read one or two of these stories while deciding on what to read next (which is partly what I did). If I get a chance, I’ll come back to this anthology and review the rest of the stories within.
Also Try: Warriors anthology, edited by George R.R. Martin (2010)